Mark Smith has coached a lot of basketball in his career. Boys teams. College women’s teams. Girls teams.
A basketball junkie, Smith is a 1977 graduate of Elk Grove High School, where he played for Ken Grams. He went on to play at Beloit College before embarking on a coaching career that has spanned multiple schools and venues.
And now, Smith is embarking on a new challenge as the head varsity girls coach at Burlington Central. He becomes the program’s fifth coach in the last six years, taking over for Jenna Real, whose teaching job was downsized after she coached her alma mater to a 13-16 season a year ago.
“I was interested when Jenna got the job,” Smith said. “I was kind of surprised when it opened up again and I became interested again. I was tickled to get the job. I’m well aware of Central’s tradition and how good they are in sports.”
More about that later.
Smith’s career path to Burlington Central has had several stops. After graduating from Beloit College he began his coaching career there. Then there was a stint on the staff of Hall of Fame boys coach Steve Goers at Rockford Boylan. Smith then became the head boys coach at Ridgewood High School before heading to St. Charles, where he worked with another Hall of Famer, Ron Johnson. Eventually Smith landed as the head boys coach at St. Charles North.
But then along came a kid named Kelsey Smith, a pretty good player herself, and as it became apparent Kesley was going to play Division I basketball, Mark eventually stepped back from coaching to watch his daughter play. Kelsey transferred to DePaul from Michigan State and she’ll be eligible to play for coach Doug Bruno’s Blue Demons on Thanksgiving Day.
Kelsey’s career gave Mark more of an insight to the girls game and he began coaching with Derril Kipp’s Illinois Hustle AAU program, then spent two years as a women’s assistant at Harper College before taking over that program for three years. A teacher at St. Charles North, Smith took last year off to watch Kelsey play, which will become somewhat easier this year with her at DePaul even though dad is coaching again.
“The switch from boys to girls has been a blessing,” Smith said. “It’s so much more fun. It’s still basketball but it’s a different feel and a different vibe. I’m enjoying it more than I did before.”
Smith won’t try to reinvent the coaching wheel on Rocket Hill. He’s been around long enough to know that doesn’t really work.
“I learned at the beginning at Harper that you refine things as you become older as a coach,” Smith said. “You figure out what’s going to work.”
Ask any basketball coach the biggest difference between the boys game and the girls game, and the likely answer you’ll get is the speed of the game. The boys game, in the majority of circles, has become an extension of AAU. While coaches preach defense — and we all know defense wins championships — most boys players want to be Derrick Rose or LeBron James. The contrast in the girls game is less individual play and more team play. It’s a gender thing, and that’s the reality of most sports when you compare boys teams to girls teams.
“I feel like in the girls game you can do more coaching,” Smith said. The boys game has become more one-on-one and individualized. I feel like with the girls you can do more Xs and Os coaching. The girls are more old school.”
Smith’s first Burlington Central team will be one of youth and inexperience. Seniors Camille Dela Cruz and Erica Haynes along with sophomore Taylor Colby logged a lot of varsity minutes last year but the core of the team is a freshman group that people around Rocket Hill have been talking about since they were in fourth or fifth grade.
Dela Cruz, who will play soccer on scholarship at Northern Iowa, says she’s impressed with her new coach so far.
“I like how coach Smith has a practice plan and that he’s very organized,” she said. “He’s very approachable. He talks to us one-one-one and tells us what to improve on. I look at is as a new year and a new beginning. What’s in the past is in the past.”
About that past. Burlington Central, while competitive, has not hung a heck of a lot of banners in the gym over the years. In fact, the Rockets have only three regional titles, the last coming in 1990, and one sectional crown from the Ralph Hix-coached 1984 team. A regional title might not happen this year, but as the freshmen mature and Smith implements his system, things could change.
“We’ve got some talent this year,” said Smith, who has a roster of just 10 players. “All 10 should play. The freshmen are going to take a while. The age difference will be huge. But once they get the system down we’ll be OK.”
Dela Cruz agrees.
“We’ll get experience along the way and we have potential,” she said. “The freshmen are super great and easy to work with.”
As is the Rockets’ new coach, a coach all Burlington Central fans hope will bring a winning attitude to the program.
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